Picture your average American playground. Of the five children waiting in line at the slide or soaring on the swingset, one of them may be living in poverty. Roughly 16.1 million kids in the United States now come from families where the total household income is less than the federal poverty level of $23,550 per year for a family of four. Almost half of those kids live in deepest poverty, on household earnings of less than $11,775 per year. The number of homeless children enrolled in school topped one million at last count. The epidemic is growing fastest in the suburbs, where the number of poor families jumped by 64 percent from 2000 to 2011.
"Families with young children are the poorest segment of our society," says Benard Dreyer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at New York University's School of Medicine and cochair of the Academic Pediatric Association's Task Force on Childhood Poverty. Research shows that low-income children as young as 9 months of age show weaker cognitive and social development than their advantaged peers. "Poor mothers of young children are more likely to experience depression, which means they're less likely to talk to and engage with their babies in ways that promote development," explains Sheila Smith, Ph.D., director of the Early Childhood Program at the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York City. Even when these parents aren't depressed, they may be working long hours, living in unsafe or unstable housing, or struggling to put dinner on the table. "These children are dealing with all the repercussions of poverty during the crucial years for early brain development," says Dr. Dreyer. "After these effects take hold in the first three or four years, it's hard to catch up."
More than 30 percent of children in poverty show signs of emotional or behavioral problems, studies show. Their physical health suffers too: Children born into poverty experience dramatically higher rates of infant mortality and low birthweight. As they grow, they are more likely to struggle with both hunger and weight problems, as well as chronic medical issues like asthma and diabetes.
So what's the answer? Childhood poverty is a complex issue, but the solutions don't have to be. Dr. Dreyer points to the United Kingdom, which cut its rate of children in poverty from 26 percent in 1998 to just 12 percent in 2008 through a series of tax credits, government programs, and its first national minimum wage, which is set at a higher level than in the U.S. "When there is a national will to fix this problem, it's possible," he says. At press time, Congress was poised to allow cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, as food stamps are now known) effective November 1, reducing benefits for more than 22 million children. You can go to parents.com/fight-poverty for a letter to your representative letting him or her know that you want antipoverty programs to be a priority.
There's more you can do. Consider making this holiday season a time for your family to help kids in need. We've compiled a list of incredible nonprofit organizations working on every angle of this issue. They've received a rating of three stars or higher from Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator that assesses charities on their financial health and accountability and transparency--so you can rest assured that your dollars will go directly to where they can do the most good.
1. Children's Health Fund
In 1986, musician Paul Simon befriended a homeless woman named Marie whom he saw every morning as he walked to his recording studio in New York City. Then one day, Marie wasn't there--and Simon had no way of finding out whether she was okay. He became interested in the problem of homelessness and met child advocate Irwin Redlener, M.D., now a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University (and a Parents advisor), and they spent a day visiting homeless shelters. They didn't find Marie, though they discovered another disturbing fact: "We saw what was essentially a warehouse for a thousand homeless kids and their families," Dr. Redlener remembers. "And nobody was paying attention to whether they were receiving even the most basic medical care." Together with Dr. Redlener's wife, Karen, they launched the Children's Health Fund (CHF) in a "big blue bus" that housed a state-of-the-art mobile medical clinic. Today, the organization runs a network of 50 mobile health clinics, as well as more than 200 fixed-site health centers, in underserved, low-income neighborhoods across the country, reaching more than 350,000 poor and homeless children to date.
How You Can Help
$25 can get three babies essential immunizations. $50 can buy asthma meds for one child. $100 can help get care for a sick homeless child.